Foreign LL.M. students add to U.S. student experience

By Angela Morris

Vanessa Suarez’s career plan is to be an international arbitrator. It would seem then, that the third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law would have chosen a law school in a more cosmopolitan city than Austin, which gets props for being hip but not exactly international.

But Suarez has no regrets. The University of Texas offers an LL.M. program for foreign attorneys, designed to prepare them for a global practice. The foreign attorneys are fully integrated into the J.D. classes, so that they sit side-by-side with American students like Suarez.

“We have students from all over the world, really, and they all had different perspectives they bring in class that I would not have thought of,” Suarez said. “With everything becoming global, there’s no such thing as domestic law any more.”

University of Texas is one of 74 law schools that offer a program in U.S. law for foreign attorneys and one of 156 to admit foreign attorneys to a graduate law program. Those numbers have grown exponentially in the past decade, as law has become more international.

The programs are financially beneficial to law schools, and they provide foreign attorneys with a degree from the legal education system that is considered the gold standard globally.  But American J.D. students are also benefitting from such programs. The foreign lawyers in their classes, study groups, mock trial teams and law student organizations are exposing U.S. law students to different legal cultures, which prepare them to practice in an increasingly global economy. J.D. students begin building international professional networks that follow them through their legal careers.

“For students who want to be the best lawyer possible, you need to be aware of how other countries and legal systems approach their legal issues and problems,” said Karen McMichael, interim assistant dean for graduate and international law programs at Temple University — James E. Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia.

It is important for U.S. law students to get an international perspective, McMichael said. Lawyers increasingly interact with attorneys in other countries and deal with other nations’ regulations, which means they must understand there is more than one way of doing things. Taking classes with foreign attorneys is especially valuable for law students who are interested in practicing international law, since it allows them to develop an international network of attorneys.

She said that U.S. students should befriend international lawyers to take advantage of their expertise and perspective — while also helping them bridge cultural divides including language barriers and a sometimes wildly different method of legal education.

Foreign attorneys have many options to earn an LL.M. from an American law school. Roughly half of all the individuals enrolled in LL.M. programs are graduates of foreign law schools.

Nathan Neely, director of global and graduate programs at the University of Houston Law Center, said that between 30 to 60 foreign lawyers have enrolled in his school’s U.S. Law LL.M. program in recent years. They’ve represented 20 different countries — with Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and the United Kingdom being the most common. The average age is 35, with LL.M. students ranging from 22 to 65, Neely said.

Aside from bringing international knowledge, these students are also practicing attorneys who chime into classroom discussions with legal expertise and advanced knowledge, which adds another interesting perspective, he said. For example, an LL.M. student from Brazil in an energy law class took a discussion about international energy contracts to a higher level, because he had actually handled such work.

“The legal market itself from my perspective is moving to be more internationally focused,” Neely said. “Just having the international student population here that we do, it’s one more tool in [J.D. students’] tool chest.”

Suarez, the Texas law student who hopes to become an international arbitrator, said it’s been eye-opening to learn about other countries’ legal cultures. Suarez said she could read books about other nations’ legal systems, but it’s so different to hear it from international attorneys who’ve sat side-by-side with her in classes since her second year of law school.

Suarez, who holds duel citizenship in the U.S. and Columbia, is fluent in both English and Spanish.

“Last year, I had a few LL.M. students who were Columbian and I’ve kept in touch with them, and I’m trying to build a network in both countries,” she said.





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